ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The scent and sizzle of country sausage drifted across the late afternoon as clouds moved in on the Chugach foothills off in the distance. Irma Meisner from Rifle, Colo., cooked dinner while, a dozen campsites down the line, Al Krueger from Shawano, Wis., whittled away the day, stripping bark from a diamond willow destined to become a lamp.
A typical recreational vehicle camp scene, filled with typical summer visitors to Alaska -- except it was all happening on a huge vacant lot behind Dimond Center along one of the busiest streets in Anchorage.
This is not the wilderness, Toto.
By 4 p.m. Monday, more than 80 trailers, converted buses and campers of every size and description were parked on the barren, serviceless land, and veterans of the last few nights said more than 200 would settle in before dark.
Tourists rolling north in land yachts have used the back of the Dimond Center as an unofficial campground since the mid-1980s, but never in the numbers showing up this year. No one is sure why so many RV enthusiasts are choosing to visit Alaska, but the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Highway seems to have something to do with it.
All the official RV campgrounds are booked and filled, said Shirley McWilliams of the Golden Nugget Camper Park on DeBarr. "This year there's been a lot more traffic, a lot more," Ms. McWilliams said.
Frances and Iris Raley, retired orange growers from Sebring, Fla., heard about the free mall parking while lined up for a campsite at Denali National Park. A woman from Montana told them. Bud and Irma Meisner heard about it from other RV drivers over the CB radio.
It used to be that campers had to hook up to power and water lines to get the conveniences cranking. No more. The Raleys' air-conditioned, 30-foot Landau sleeps four, has a 12-volt television and VCR, a shower, a 110-volt generator and a 40-gallon water tank.
For a middle-comfort caravaner, $50,000 is not an unusual price. The customized buses can cost $300,000.
The mall management neither encourages nor discourages the squatters. "They show up every year," said spokeswoman Gerry Monroe. "It doesn't bother us, and I'm sure it's convenient for them."
And they bring money. All afternoon, little knots of RV enthusiasts carrying bags of merchandise strolled between the mall and the acres of parked campers. "We're spending too much shopping," said Bud Meisner. "We've got to get out of here."
Shopping mall squatters aren't an Anchorage-only phenomenon. In Fairbanks, Fred Meyer lets campers hook up to parking lot outlets installed for winter use by customers with engine heaters. Stores in Juneau and Soldotna also welcome the passing trade. Sometimes, local campsite owners complain that the stores are cutting into their business by providing free parking.
Many of the road warriors are retired workers, living on small pensions and Social Security. Some admit they would probably park at the mall even if the real RV campgrounds had available slots. "When you can save a buck, you can get that much more gas," explained Al Krueger, who is headed with his wife, Alma, to an RV jamboree in Valdez later this month.
Bud and Irma Meisner are also going to Valdez.